By STEVE MASCORD
THIS time last year, Darren Lockyer and Jamie Peacock were tackling each other in the Four Nations. Yesterday, they met in London to tackle the vexed issue of rugby league’s eligibility rules.
Of course, the retired captains of Australia and England (Peacock is still playing for Leeds) had a little prompting from NRL.com when we caught up with them at the offices of London PR firm Fast Track, who have been hired to promote the 2013 World Cup.
Lockyer is in the United Kingdom as part of his role as the ARLC’s ambassador for international rugby league. He has been mobbed at functions in Leigh, Wigan and Hull – requiring security to get him out of a banqueting suite on one occasion.
Eligibility shapes as one of the biggest issues in the game in the 12 months until the World Cup, to be hosted by England and Wales.
Lockyer says players who miss out on selection for Australia, New Zealand and England must be allowed to play for other countries.
“Those developing nations at the moment need all the support they can get and if we can get the services of some NRL players, that’s only going to benefit them,” the record-breaking five-eighth told us in a sixth-floor boardroom on Victoria Street, before doing a host of phone interviews.
“Once they get a black and white picture around eligibility for Origin, that will be a good thing for the game. But when we’re trying to develop countries like Papua New Gunea, Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, Wales, all those countries … I think having these players who have had NRL experience but can’t represent Australia … well at this point in time, it’s the right thing to do to allow those guys to play for other countries.
“Once those countries get a foundation and become a lot stronger, then we should look at altering the rules. But at this point in time, we need to make as many nations as we can competitive against the so-called Big Three.
“We’ve got to face the facts that our game, at an international level, has still got a long way to go. We need to put things in place where we can get it to a point where we don’t have to have these issues.
“At the moment, eligibility rules are relaxed in a World Cup year. That’s the right thing to do.”
Peacock, who retired from representative football earlier this year, offered even more forthright views – supporting calls from Origin and Australian eligibility to be separated.
“With guys like (James) Tamou, he should play for New Zealand and New South Wales,” said Peacock, “That rule needs to change over there.
“If you’re born in New Zealand or have New Zealand parents but you play your first club football in NSW or Brisbane … I think (Origin) is killing (international football) a bit, really.
“And if you had a bigger international scene, you wouldn’t have it as much. Players think they won’t get the chance to play the big teams so they choose to represent Australia or England or New Zealand.”
And the man who captained Great Britain in its last Test before the home countries were split, in 2007, said a return to the famous red, white and blue strip would
stop the drain of players from Wales, Scotland and Ireland to England and its feeder team, England Knights.
“That’s down to losing Great Britain – pure and simple,” Peacock said. “If you had Great Britain playing every four years, you wouldn’t see that.
“You’d see the players who can play for Scotland, play for Scotland. You’d see the players who can play for Ireland, play for Ireland and you’d see the guys who can play for Wales, play for Wales.
“And then once every four years, you get together for Great Britain. These guys will play in a strong side against Australia.
“Great Britain is an unbelieveably big brand … hugely after the Olympics … and should be brought back, not every year but every four years.”
Lockyer, whose trip is mostly funded by the NRL, will enjoy a holiday in Hong Kong on his way home early next week. He says his first year of retirement has been an adventure.
Television, he said, was “nerve-racking. You have to learn a whole new set of skills.
“At the start of the year, the enjoyment wasn’t there for me and I probably questioned whether it was the way to go or … did I really want to be doing this?
“But as the season wore on, I got a bit more comfortable and obviously the guys I played a bit of footy with … and guys I haven’t worked with before, once I got a bit more comfortable with them, I started to enjoy it.
By STEVE MASCORD